Monday, September 26, 2011

The Cormorant vs. The Chokecherry Tree

What’s the most important thing, I think, as I stress out to prepare for my class.  Well, I can’t take credit for the question.  The rain clouds just broke apart, scattered by a wind, and that wind swayed the wind chimes.  Bent over a student’s work, I mean slouched, bent, crouched as if ready to pounce – the cormorant pose as my friend Jo calls it, or maybe the vulture – the chime chimed, I looked up,  out past it to a radiance:  diamonds winked from the chokecherry tree.    Its leaves deep maroon, drops of this morning’s rain dangled among them.  Light glinted off the still-wet leaves – a chandelier, a candelabra, the wind setting it to glittering.  And the question was just there.  What’s the most important thing?

This was a different voice than the one that’s been whispering like a pusher in my ear.  I straightened up, looked for my journal, not there, so I came to the blog write it out.  Why is just after I e-mailed a fellow cancer survivor on the Cape that my fear’s subsiding, why is it right after that, the fear rears up, in full force, like a gust?  “No you don’t,” it says, shaking its shaggy head and laughing low in its throat.  “Remember the pathology report?  The cancer was small but aggressive.  Only a dumb ass wouldn’t be scared.  Why don’t you read up on that, on the Internet, if you don’t believe me.” So I do, that obsessive googling madness, and the next thing you know I’m in a straight jacket, the cormorant’s wrapped me tight in its wings, and pretty soon my back aches. 

Like someone pursued by bees, I grab my jacket and head out the door.  I go to the greenhouse.  I fill a basket with yellow tomatoes.  I eat a couple, and like the crazy person I become when I’m thick in the fear, I hiss, “Fuck you cancer.  FUCK.  YOU.”  If I were on a New York City street, people would give me a wide berth, or maybe even toss me a coin.  I pick and pick, tomatoes plunk plunk into the bucket, a few cucumbers too, and then out to the garden, broccoli, yellow squash, snap peas, carrots.  Take that, you asshole.  (Why did I have that coffee?  Maybe it’s acidifying my body, a nice cancer-loving acid-bath, what’s wrong with me?  Why not just green tea???)   I eat carrots, mud and all, munch peas like a rabbit, and on my way back to the house, I pluck service berries off the bush, stuff them in my mouth, Take that too, you prick.

This anger at it all, sudden and fierce.  And totally irrational.  No target for it.

Then the wind chime.  And the sun.  What really matters?  Will my stress prepare me to teach the ultimate class tonight in the nature essay?  Will it extend my life?  The tree outside my window sparkles like it's sprouting crystals instead of berries.  A few birch leaves skitter to the ground.  My feisty Steller’s jay neighbor lands on the railing and shrieks at me:  “More walnuts! Now!”  I shrug the cormorant off my back.  I straighten up in my chair, push my shoulders back, thrust my chest out, breath into my pectoral the way my massage therapist told me to.  I eat more snap peas and drink big glasses of water and pop my Arimidex.  Take that, scum

Who am I railing at anyway?  It’s not cancer I fight.  That’s a shadow demon, not anything real in my body at this moment.  I curse at the black crouching bird latched onto my back with its sharp black talons.

I think the insults just make it madder, but damn, it feels good to say, to scream even, sometimes, to chase it out the door with a broom.  The only true way to fight back though, I know, is more glints of leaves, more tomatoes bursting their own kind of diamonds on my tongue, more wind on skin.  More aliveness.

And something, something, to wake me up, to jangle that question in my ear, to jangle it loud enough so I can hear it above the hiss of fear:  What’s the most important thing?  Right now?  Today? 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

To Burn or Not to Burn?

To burn or not to burn?  It’s a good day to ask that question, with the latest hurricane-force storm barreling over the south coast of Alaska.  Rain hammers the porch furniture.  Gusts bend the birch trees.  Rain tumbleweeds down the road.  Clouds erase the bay.  The world is sodden again after two glorious fall days. 

Last night, in what’s become a yearly ritual in Homer, under almost clear skies (the storm clouds building to the west, the northeast wind kicking up) over 200 people came together to let go, to watch an enormous basket burn.  A basket of remembrance and unburdening is how my friend Mavis, who conceived of this ephemeral art project, describes it.  There have been eight baskets built in Homer.  Eight Septembers.  Last year, I was on Cape Cod, so Mavis asked me to write a poem.  She says I’ve participated in every basket since the beginning, thanks to the poem.

The first year of the basket, I was one of three core volunteers (besides Mavis).  As we dragged straight, long warp sticks a half mile down the beach to the site, as we dug a deep hole in the sand to set a sturdy log as a center pole, as we drove around town and gathered bundles of blue-joint grass from meadows and roadsides over the course of days, it seemed impossible.  A basket ten feet tall?  Woven meticulously of grass bundles (chubby bundles Mavis dubbed them)?  In six days?  It snowed on us.  The wind raged.  When our hands got numb, we hid out in a purple bus a circus family had leant to the project.  Warmed by its small propane oven, we wove decorations out of nettles and spruce cones until restored enough to venture back out to the basket.  Evenings, murders of crows landed on it, arguing over its meaning.  Strangers drove up to ask us what the hell we were doing.  “Building a giant basket,” Mavis said, as if it were a ridiculous question.  “Why?”  If they persisted, she’d explain the concept of ephemeral, volunteer-created community art.  “Is it some kind of pagan ritual?” people often asked.  “No, it’s not,” Mavis said.  “It’s art.  It’s what people want to make it.”  On the last day, dozens of people came to decorate the basket with paper cranes, notes to departed loved ones, filling the basket with prayers, scraps of paper, sealed envelopes, photographs, lists of things to let go of.  And on the last night, we lit torches and set it on fire. 

Now, in our town, it’s like Thanksgiving, Solstice, or the Fourth of July, this Burning Basket of Remembrance and Unburdening.  The first basket Mavis dubbed “Adieu.”  This one, “Together.”  It marks another transition, another September, with its rainbows, howling gales, dark blue skies on still-warm days, first dust of snow on the mountain tops across the bay, bright yellow patches in the forest canopy, with all the birds in town restless to head south:  sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, thrushes, robins, Canada geese.  As I gathered fireweed from a meadow near my house for the basket’s crown, the woods were achortle with birdsong, and when I walked along the road, robins and thrushes lifted off the ground by the dozens.  Staging to leave.  It was sunny and balmy, and if I closed my eyes, I could fool myself into thinking it was spring.

Two days before the burning, into the “trilogy labyrinth” constructed by school kids and volunteers in the sand beside the basket, I placed the body cast my friend Deer, on Cape Cod, helped me make before my surgery.  It was a ritual of remembrance and unburdening, too.  I stood naked with my eyes closed as she laid squares of cloth dipped in plaster onto my torso.  Then she peeled off a white cast, which I decorated a few days later, laying on strips of tissue paper in colors of Prince William Sound, blues and greens, invoking the place I’d want my breast to go, if I had an option.  The torso cast became an altar piece all the months of treatment, and then I shipped it home.  I imagined all sorts of demises for it, ways to let it go, that previous version of my body.  The shadow of the tumor reflected in the shape of the right breast.  I’d pressed a spiral of feathers into it, circling the breast, then leading away:  fly out, fly away.  After I put the torso in the labyrinth, I had second thoughts.  Fire.  My body had experienced enough of that.  Chemo and radiation are a kind of fire.  Estrogen blocking therapy invites hot flashes, another kind of burning from within.  It’s been raining.  Rain cools fire.  I envisioned the cast in the woods somewhere, dissolving in rain, buried in leaves, then snow, disappearing like the carcass of a deer over the winter, back into the earth.  I imagined walking through the woods, stumbling upon the remains.  Or I imagined taking it to the Sound, hiding it under a huge tree or boulder.  Or I imagined it wedged into the crook of a pair of intertwined birch trees in the woods near my house.  Okay.  When it gets dark, I thought, the night of the ritual, I’ll sneak into the labyrinth and retrieve the torso cast and take it back home.  In the meantime, I gathered a huge pile of yellow devil’s club leaves for the basket’s skirt, extra for the torso cast.  I covered the cast almost entirely with those leaves.  It felt too naked and exposed out there on the sand for all to see.  The covering of leaves mimicked the new vision I had for letting it go.

The night of the burning, I stood with over two hundred others listening as Mavis, standing on a wooden ladder, offered up the basket, now covered with paper cranes, prayers, messages, feathers, ribbons, strips of birch bark, photographs, memorabilia.  My friend hung an antique pocket watch from one corner, some mysterious letting go of his own.  I looked around, and it seemed so many people I’ve mentioned in this blog had gathered.  D (the man with ALS) in his high-tech wheelchair, a blanket draped over his legs.  He designed and guided the welding of the two giant fire-breathing salmon guarding the entrance to the labyrinth.  (D was a welder and commercial salmon fisherman).  Shirley, my 91 year old friend who lost her beloved this summer, was there, in a red woolen cap over her beautiful long silver hair.  She put into the basket all of the sympathy cards she’d received, all unanswered; the act of burning them was a kind of profound answer.  “I feel a release for the first time since Johnny died,” she said.  “It’s not about closure.  There is no closure.  I don’t know what that word means.”  Yes, I thought.  As always, Shirley gets it right.  She'd tucked into the basket a letter Johnny's daughter e-mail to her.  And her own love letter to Johnny.  Also there I saw, L, whose husband, the father of their two young daughters, died suddenly of a liver cancer around the time of my diagnosis.  I hadn't seen her since.  We hugged long and hard.  A kind of hard hug that says it’s not okay, but I’m letting go anyway.  This is not closure.  This is marking something.  But not the ending of anything like grief or longing or loss.  Like a cairn, it marks a trail, a way station.  I’d put some of the same names on scraps of sea paper I’d collected in the Sound as I’ve put into the basket in previous years, and some new ones:  Catherine, who died of breast cancer last winter; Trudy, who died of lung cancer this spring; Paula, who died of ovarian cancer a short time after Trudy.  And then, my fierce prayer:  a spiral of names, including my own name, a circle of friends who'd had breast cancer, who lived forward into a life after.  On a big scrap of sea paper I wrote down those things I wanted to let go of.  I release you.  My fear, I release you, fiercely sings the fierce poet and rock musician Joy Harjo. 

Mavis talked about fire, how it both heals and destroys.  It is fierce, something inside me realized.  Rain is real and gentle and soothing and cooling and healing.  But fire is real and healing in its own way.  So with a half hour to go, I changed my mind again.  Or maybe that's the wrong way to put it.  Some shift inside and out changed my mind.  No turning back, I went to the labyrinth, covered the torso cast in a shroud of devil’s club leaves (also fierce, bright yellow, gorgeous, but covered in vicious spines), and carried it to the basket.  My friend Erin brought a ladder, propped it next to the basket.  I climbed up with the cast in my arms, and leaned over the side, placed it on top of the kindling, the wood, the wax boxes, the limbs.  I saw other things people must have climbed up to place there:  a handmade journal.  Sealed envelopes.  A burst of ragged sobs passed through me.  Not a gentle rain, but a hailstorm, sharp, stabbing, fierce release.  Hard like a cough.  Like my grandmother beating her breast in prayer.  Hard like a certain kind of hug. 

Then I climbed back down and stood with everyone else to watch the whole thing burn.  The whole basket burned to the ground in a harsh, hot fire, all its messages and prayers blowing west with the rising storm wind as a shower of sparks.  The sparks blinking out.

The next day, a massive low pressure system pushed in, hurricane force winds in the Gulf of Alaska.  It rained and rained.  It's raining still.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Prayers like Hurricane Rain

When I look out my windows right now, frrm the second floor, I can pretend it isn't September 13, isn't fall in Alaska.  The treetops are green, shaggy birch heavy with a summer's growth.  But then, a sign of the season:  a red squirrel twists like a gymnast at the end of a branch, plucking little green birch cones for its winter hoard, bolts away.  It lives behind our woodshed.

I've stepped away from the book I'm writing.  I wrote myself into another box canyon, what's been a repeating part of my process all summer.  Not writing at the cusp of season, when I'm stuck or blocked it's like mid-winter in my brain, and no sign of relief.  No gain or loss of daylight.  So I came here, to this blog, like an animal who creeps into its den, weary of effort.  I wanted to transcribe in here a kind of dialogue I had with "God" out in Prince William Sound last week.  How I wrote my way to a kind of scream, actually.

I've returned from my last trip to Prince William Sound for the season; twelve days under dense cloud cover, rained upon, weathered out by big storms twice, one with hurricane-force winds.  We picked mushrooms, cooked up big panfuls of king boletes and hedgehog mushrooms and beach greens, wrote on our computers as the gusts spun the boat around the anchor, kayaked in drenching downpours, in water silty and green from runoff and melting glacial ice.  Icebergs floated, translucent jade, fluted, a dozen miles from their homes.  We fished bits out of the water for our coolers.  Every day we could be searching, we found orcas, indifferent to the weather, it seemed, hunting salmon down the passages.

One of the first days out, we dropped off three 30 gallon plastic barrels of fuel at Whale Camp, for Olga, who studies humpback whales.  Craig tipped the barrels off the boat's stern; I paddled to shore in the kayak, met them as they bobbed to shore, then dragged them up the beach (not far, it was low tide), up and over a log berm, behind a screen of ryegrass.  Proud to do it all myself until I felt a little strain in my upper back, but nothing bad.  I did some stretches on the beach, and then we hiked up the bluff searching for blueberries.  And then the next day, a stormy one, sitting at the computer all afternoon, an ache started up under my arm, radiated into and around and out my left breast, a kind of nerve pain.  Most likely, of course, a tweak form the barrel-dragging.  And hey.  Breast cancer rarely presents as pain.  Well, mine did.  But come on, lightning can't strike the same person twice, the exact same way (one side, then the other), right?  Later that day, I wrote in my journal:

"Of course I am scared.  I am scared every day, practically every hour.  Would having had a baby protected me from breast cancer?'  I'd just finished reading an essay called "The Shape of an Egg," which opens with a woman, early in the morning, holding her toddler's sleepy body in the bowl of her own.  "I am sorry body," I wrote, "for all the years it took me to grow up, all the bumbling and fucking around, dawdling, wanting to be older or younger than I was and am.  The ache is deep.  I feel my breast and armpit continually, for a lump, a mass, a nodule.  Fear pushes my fingers deeper, making my body ache all the more.  All this as we head toward whale spouts in the morning sun, a humpback's white flipper glistening as it pauses in the air before smashing down.  And killer whales up ahead, Craig yells down from the flying bridge.  All the gifts of my life, all the reasons I want to live.  All the longing."

"It is danger," an Athabascan woman said to the woman who wrote the essay.  Meaning living, meaning love.  And she is right.

The next day, anchored up in a storm, I wrote about the rest of that day:

"Yesterday I got so scared I just wept.  The world seemed a hopeless place of misery.  Where prayers cry out to a great indifference, even nothing.  Where even the earth (as seen from afar on this boat out in Montague Strait miles from shore) offers no solace.  The whales impossible to photograph.  The swell pushing in against the tide, steepening the waves.  My breast and chest and shoulder and armpit aching.  I wondered, did this experience of breast cancer destroy my faith in something sacred, something listening and paying attention?  Had prayer fallen away from me?  Am I now an atheist???"

Then I read the words of Li-Young Lee, one of my favorite poets: "Somehow I feel like we have to participate in that Greater Will:  we have to bargain with him or it, or denounce it, and somehow reaffirm it by our arguments ... Submission leads to complacency . . . Whether or not there is a Godliness and a sacredness in the world -- everything rides on that."

Yes, that's it for me, too, I thought.  Sitting at the little table on the boat, I wrote on and on:  "Is it enough to pray for courage, to face whatever comes?  Is that all I can do?  But where is that courage on a day when I'm overwhelmed by fear and lie on my side and cry like a wounded animal?  No, it's not enough for me to simply pray for courage.  I want mercy.  I want my life.  I want mercy for my friend Lauren.  For little Bennett.  Healing.  Direct intervention.  God damn it.  It was a clear day yesterday when I was so scared, but clouds, high and thin, pulled over the Sound.  Storm warning, the weather man warned.  In the night, the first wind gust barreled down the mountainside and shoved the boat sideways, hit it broadside, a wall of wind, a huge hand.  I fretted.  I didn't think in that moment to pray, God, let the anchor hold.  I wasn't afraid.  I have faith in the mud below.  The anchor over and over, year after year, ascending from the bottom of this bay covered in mud, gray mud glopping off the anchor tines onto the bow, good, sticky mud staining my hands, mud that holds.  The storm this morning is like an answered prayer.  I love it like a child loves God.  It's fierce and strong, but I'm safe within it.  I want to cultivate a faith that will carry me through fear, which comes on like a storm, but fear isn't something I can love like a storm.  Li-Young Lee wrote that at some point he "gave up and began addressing the god he grew up with."  The point is, perhaps, to give into that one faith -- whatever it is -- completely.  If I don't nurture some kind of faith, fear will be my God.  I won't be in Lucky Bay, but in the middle of the Gulf, the storm not a refuge, but a destroyer."  Li-Young Lee also wrote "I don't mind suffering as long as it's really about something."  That's it too.  But no one will hand that meaning to me, what this is all about, it won't just show up at the end of a day.  I have to dig for it, carve away layers of surface to reach it, by writing.  Maybe that's the way I'm a participant in the sacred.  Maybe that's part of my negotiation with God.  Maybe my argument is with supposed "reality," with the atheist and rationalist in me.  I won't give in to those things.  I will go down fighting them.  No matter how many of my prayers go unheard and unanswered (or so it might seem).  No matter if I sit here as the wind pushes the boat around and it rains and trains and blows 65 knots for days.  Maybe I'll just get louder and more insistent.  Demanding, like a storm, like a hurricane for gust:  Please (no -- forget please) God/Goddess/Earth take away the pain in my breast, take away the fear.  Keep my body free of cancer.  Heal Lauren completely.  Let Lauren and Rich adopt a child and live happily ever after.  I don't care if we don't deserve it any more than anyone else does.  Do it anyway."

With my fierce tears I pray:  Rain your mercy down on us.  You damned bastard.  Rain it down.